Drug Ed 101: Just Say Know

by Steve Heilig, March 8, 2017

For a time I provided 'drug education' in public and private schools. As an outsider consultant, this was often tacit recognition that nobody on staff could or wanted to do it, and that the students were unlikely to listen to them anyway. Whether many of them actually listened to me was uncertain, but I tried.

My only condition for doing the talks was that I was the only "adult" in the room, to help the kids be more open with questions and such. Having co-chaired a national conference on drug education, I was aware that there was little-to-no evidence that such efforts "worked" — if working means less drug use. Many drug educational approaches, often packaged in expensive programs sold to schools who feel they must do something "for the children," have been unable to convincingly show they have impact.

Drug use trends go up and down with no correlation to our policies and educational approaches. Quack programs like the Scientology-linked "Narconon" — the name a tricky tweak on NarcAnon, the twelve-step recovery program — edge into schools by offering their wares for free at first — like the proverbial "first one's free" drug pusher. But those weren't the only programs school districts didn't like. Regulations and PTA-oriented strictures can discourage true candor — the "just say no" mentality. Meanwhile, even after undergoing such education, most often the kids who were most prone to "experiment" with drugs do so, and those who weren't, don't. And the profitable, tax-fed "drug ed" industry rolls on.

As an adult, middle-aged even, I had at least two strikes against me. Who would listen to some old guy? So I knew I had to come out swinging, as it were. I brought a tape player in and began with those noted health educators, Cheech and Chong. They released a famous skit in 1972 titled "Sargeant Stadanko", wherein a clueless cop shows up in class to burn some reefer and tell the kids how dangerous it is. He burns a sample and the kids start yelling "that's Home-grown!', or, "Naah, that's Michoacan!" and so on. "They seem very well-informed" he cluelessly says to the nun/teacher, as they indeed are — much moreso than he is. He then starts talking about brain damage, and says, "Remember, only dopes use dope."

This exact scenario played out in my junior high school in the 1970s. When the cop lit up, giggling stoners were saying "crappy Mexican 'mersh, man" ("mersh" = "commercial"). Many students were far ahead of the cop and our teachers. In fact, the official drug ed program in our school, named SOS for "Stamp Out Stupidity," quickly devolved into a locus of discussion on where to get some of the latest batch of Colombian, Thai, Mexican, or whatever. It was a running joke: "I'm gonna stop by SOS and see what's up, heh heh...".

So I played the kids Sgt. Stadanko — a recording from long before they were born — and then clicked 'pause' and just stood there, eyebrows raised. A few of the kids looked at me with knowing grins; some looked confused, and some stared at their desks. Then I'd play some music. First up was a slice of the Grateful Dead's legendary longest improvisatory freakout tune, "Dark Star." It floated along, space-like, and then I'd jump the recording ahead to pure Dead feedback (which they used to treat audiences too for extended bits in the 1960s).

"What kind of drugs do you think that's about?" I'd ask (answer: LSD/pot), and then jump into some hard-core electronic dance techno, and ask the same question (ecstasy, speed). By then, I seemed to have most of their attention, if only as they thought I might be nuts. Then I'd go into a whirlwind tour of human biology, drug history, and specific substances they were most likely to encounter or at least hear of, if they hadn't already.

One important point is that all of this "drug" talk was really to trick them into talking about the truly dangerous "gateway" drugs — tobacco and alcohol (and nowadays, one might add pilfered prescription meds). The Gateway Theory, most often applied to pot, posits that certain drugs lead to harder ones, and it's often true, but even more commonly not — and that's less about the drugs themselves than the kind of people one hangs out with while doing them. Evidence is strong that most kids start with the legal ones, and the earlier they do, the more likely they are to have problems later. That certainly seemed true in my cohort of pals.

Anyway, in a nutshell, here's what I said to kids about certain drugs.

Tobacco: The worst. Really! Wholly addictive and it will not only shorten your life but do it in a very unpleasant way, via either or both heart disease and/or cancer. Marketed to you relentlessly and sneakily by big businesses who have to replace all the smokers they kill with new young ones — you — and want you to pay for the privilege. Plus you will stink and have more wrinkles around your mouth, and poison those around you even if they don't smoke. And now, since mostly lower-educated and poorer people still smoke — for example, only 10% of people in San Francisco still smoke — you won't look so cool anymore, either. Look at the face of a longtime smoker to see what you will look like before others who don't poison themselves that way.

Alcohol: Yep, most everybody drinks at some point, some their whole lives, but at least one in ten will have a serious problem with getting addicted to it, and be alcoholics, more commonly known as drunks. Others might not be that badly affected but will have their relationships messed up by it, other health problems, and maybe accidents that hurt or kill themselves and/or others. Killing your liver is a nasty way to go. Try and count how many examples of alcohol advertising you see in a single day. And again, long before that, you will look a lot older than your friends who don't drink too much.

Prescription Drugs: Nowadays, we're talking here mostly about two things — "attention" drugs such as Adderall and pain drugs such as Vicodin, etc. These have a purpose in medicine. They are also dangerous and overused. The attention-deficit drugs are less dangerous, although you really don't want to get hooked on them long-term if you can avoid it. The pain meds are very dangerous, both addictive and likely to make you do stupid, dangerous things, like driving unto death, stealing fighting, having sex with those you don't want to, and more. It's pretty much certain you will at some point look back, perhaps from a jail cell, and regret you ever took your first one.

Methamphetamine: See above for pain pills and double it. Nothing good to say. You'll not only be sick, broke, imprisoned, hurt, infected, etc, but really ugly too. There is truly nothing good to say about this evil stuff.

Molly/Ecstasy: The main problem with this stuff is that what you are usually getting is actually some form of speed (in the worst case, see meth above). And thus you get hooked before too long and all sorts of crappy stuff happens to you. If you get true MDMA — Molly, ecstasy, or other terms — you are less at risk, but it's far from fully safe. People have died from overheating while dancing long hours on this stuff; bad sex stuff you didn't want to happen happens; you can feel truly terrible afterwards. In fact, if you are down and depressed this can actually make that much worse after the few hours of buzz wear off. But again, you have a good chance of actually being ripped off and sold speed, and taking some step towards being a tweaked-out speed freak by mistake — big mistake.

Mushrooms: First, be aware that some mushrooms can kill you quick, and never take any unless you fully trust the person you get them from knows what they are doing — in fact, look at whatever you might be taking and compare to online photos of dangerous ones. If you do take some, you are likely to have an upset stomach at some point, and even puke a lot. And if you take too many, you might have an upset mind too and get quite freaked out. Hopefully this will pass and you will not have done anything too dangerous to yourself or others. Or gotten arrested. Be careful.

E-cigs/Vaping: Some use these to stop smoking. That's what the tobacco advertisers want you to believe works. But most do not. In fact, while e-cigs are less dangerous than regular tobacco cigarettes, it appears many young people start with e-cigs and move on to tobacco, not the other way around. And they are far from harmless. Be aware that there is a large industry trying to sell these to you, and that, as noted on a popular TV show ("Nurse Jackie"), "Yeah, you're right, vaping really is kinda a douchebag thing."

Pot: Saved this one for last. OK, yes, this is now legal, and "medical" use has been legal for twenty years in California. Many if not most people smoke it without much trouble. But don't believe those who tell you it is harmless. It can harm your brain and make you permanently dumber if you smoke too much too early in life; and as for later use, look at how many folks seem to devote their lives to pot in some way, and even if it is not truly "addictive" like tobacco or meth or booze, it sure can mess one up (ask a true stoner to try stopping, and see how they try to weasel out of that; while it may not be truly "addictive", it sure can be habit-forming). It was legalized mainly to keep people from getting arrested for it, not because it is seen as harmless. Remember that if you can. And check these new points just issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics if you want more:

Marijuana is not a benign drug for teens. The teen brain is still developing, and marijuana may cause abnormal brain development.

Teens who use marijuana regularly may develop serious mental health disorders, including addiction, depression, and psychosis.

There are no research studies on the use of medical marijuana in teens, so actual indications, appropriate dosing, effects, and side effects are unknown. The only data available on medical marijuana in the pediatric population are limited to its use in children with severe refractory seizures.

Recreational use of marijuana by minors and young adults under the age of 21 years is illegal and, if prosecuted, may result in a permanent criminal record, affecting schooling, jobs, etc.

Never drive under the influence of marijuana or ride in a car with a driver who is under the influence of marijuana. Adults and teens regularly get into serious and even fatal car accidents while under the influence of marijuana.

Marijuana smoke is toxic, similar to secondhand tobacco smoke. The use of vaporizers or hookahs does not eliminate the toxic chemicals in marijuana smoke.

That's all for now. Ask anything more if you wish, and be careful out there! Class dismissed.

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